Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson’s Hall of Fame case, from the coaches who faced him

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Gregg Williams started plotting his strategy to stop Calvin Johnson even before the 2011 schedule came out.

Williams, then defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, tapped into his experience as special teams coordinator two decades earlier with the Houston Oilers to come up with maybe the most unique of the many creative looks teams used to try and stop Johnson during his nine-year NFL career.

In what he dubbed “an offseason project” from the spring of 2011, Williams toyed with using a vise coverage on Jimmy Graham in Saints practices, bracketing the big tight end with two defenders at the line of scrimmage like he was a gunner on the punt team as a way to eliminate him as an option on a given offensive play.

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The concept was one Williams figured he’d use later that season when the Saints played the Lions. Sure enough, when the teams met that December, he got his chance.

With just over two minutes to play in the first half, the Lions had a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line where they split Johnson wide to the left of the line of scrimmage. Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins lined up across from Johnson, outside Johnson’s right shoulder, next to cornerback Patrick Robinson, who shaded Johnson slightly to Johnson’s left.

The Lions, essentially playing 10-on-nine football, handed the ball to running back Kevin Smith for an easy touchdown, but Williams’ concept worked. Johnson was a nonfactor in the red zone, and Smith’s touchdown aside, the Lions did not have the personnel to beat the Saints another way.

“The thing was outstanding,” Williams recalled Sunday. “They all understood it. And it’s always — when you do something and the players realize like, ‘What are we doing this for?’ They look at you like you’re a dumb ass. And not one person argued about that type of stuff. They all understood, ‘Man, this is good. We don’t want to be by ourselves. This is good.’”

Johnson is one of 15 modern era finalists who will be up for discussion when the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee meets Tuesday via Zoom. Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson also are on the ballot, and as many as five modern era players will be enshrined in Canton as part of the Class of 2021 this summer.

Johnson is one of the most unique talents the game has ever seen, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver who was one of the fastest players on the field. He holds the NFL single-season record for receiving yards (1,964). He was a three-time first-team All-Pro and all-decade choice of the 2010s.

And to Williams and other coaches and players who went against him, he was a transformational presence who changed the way the game was played and officiated.

“One of the best athletes I’ve ever had a chance to be on the field with and really rare,” Williams said. “Whenever you have to defensively take more than one person and double cover somebody all the time, we had to do that. We had to make sure that we had, not only the primary person on him but another helping person on that person. And a lot of times, even when we were doubled, we had to slide the safety that way, too. That’s the kind of player he was. And once he caught the ball, he turned into a force.

“I think the last time I ever had a chance to go against him, he might have had 12 catches. And we’re doubling and doing all kind of things to him and take it to him, but still had 12. You just scratch your head and you shake your head thinking, ‘Wow.’”

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‘So special’

When Johnson made his NFL debut Sept. 9, 2007, Rob Ryan was on the opposing sideline as Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator.

Ryan saw enough of Johnson during the pre-draft process that year — the Raiders took LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the first pick of the draft; Johnson went second to the Lions — to know that he was facing a special talent.

“I had first-round draft choices and an All-Pro corner and this kid was beating them in man coverage, so I end up having to double him, and that was the first week of the season,” Ryan recalled. “I think he had about one game he had over 100 yards against me, but understand I doubled him every single time from Game 1 on. Every snap. The guy was so special.”

Ryan was defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys in 2011 when he made headlines for claiming his defense went against two receivers better than Johnson every day in practice, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.

Nine years later, Ryan admits his motivational ploy backfired.

“I’m at Dallas and we’re playing him and someone’s asking about, ‘Well, what about Calvin Johnson?’” Ryan recalled. “’Oh no, he’s just an average guy. We got better receivers here.’ Well, I was trying to encourage our guys, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, but I was also realizing I am going to double this guy every single snap. So I just pretended we were going to have one guy on him.

“But of course, people in the media believed like, ‘Oh, I never thought he was very good.’ No, that’s the best receiver in football. He was by far the best receiver in football. Oh, and I got so much heat for it.”

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More than heat, Johnson and the Lions used Ryan’s words as fuel in a 34-30 victory over the Cowboys. Bryant caught two touchdown passes in the first half, but Johnson finished with eight catches for 96 yards and two scores, and posterized three Cowboys defenders in one of the most memorable catches of his career.

“He’s covered. I got three guys back in the back of the end zone and it’s on third-and-100 and he catches the ball for a touchdown,” Ryan said. “Jumps over our guys, it was ridiculous. But that was, that guy right there, most definitely, one of the best receivers I ever coached against. He was fantastic. And we showed him the respect he deserved. Trust me, he was doubled every (snap). If we weren’t playing man coverage, which we doubled him every time, then we were playing loaded zones where he had extra underneath players and guys over the top, so he should have had a really miserable day every game he went against us.”

Johnson’s miserable games were few and far between even though most teams used what former Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier called “junk” defenses on Johnson.

Lovie Smith, who faced Johnson twice a year 2007-12 as head coach of the Chicago Bears, said the Bears had special rules within their Cover 2 defense for Johnson, beyond asking top cornerback Charles Tillman to shadow Johnson at all times. Tillman rarely played in the slot against teams other than the Lions.

Dom Capers, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator the final seven years of Johnson’s career, said he started his game-plan meetings during Lions week by emphasizing “how we’re going to not let Calvin beat us on one play.”

And Frazier compared game-planning for Johnson to game-planning for a great quarterback.

“It was no different when people lined up to go against Peyton, it was all about Peyton Manning and our offense,” said Frazier, a former assistant with the Indianapolis Colts. “As good as Marvin Harrison was, as good as Reggie Wayne was, it was our quarterback, man. And for Detroit, it was Calvin Johnson. So when one player can affect a game the way Calvin did, yes, he’s Hall-of-Fame worthy.”

‘One of the best’

After Williams deployed vise coverage on Johnson that 2011 night in New Orleans, former Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said he went to work devising a vise-breaker in case Johnson got that look on the goal line again.

“We just had this kind of competitive fantasy where we were going to be in a situation or game where he was going to be vised and we were still going to split the vise, like you do on a punt release and throw a touchdown against it,” Linehan said. “I would love to be able to look at every one of his targets and make one of those cut-ups you can do and just say literally, he’s tripled on this play. He’s getting tripled and he still got open. So that kind of stuff was what was amazing about him.”

Johnson did face vise coverage at least one other time, in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals during his record-setting season of 2012.

Then-Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton recalls using vise coverage on Johnson on third-down snaps when the Lions were in three-receiver sets.

The Lions were without Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew because of injuries that week, leaving Kris Durham as their No. 2 receiver. Horton said his idea was to put top cornerback Patrick Peterson on Durham and double-team Johnson with a cornerback and safety or linebacker on third downs.

He even called the NFL before the game to alert them of his plan.

“There’s a little unwritten rule in the NFL rule book, if you’re double-teamed, there’s no such thing as holding,” Horton said. “You cannot hold on a double team, unless you pull the guy to the ground. So we called the league and we told the league what we’re going to do. ‘We don’t want you to call a penalty, we don’t want anything, this is what we’re going to do.’ They said fine.

“The first time they put it out there, I called it. And you should have saw the look on Matthew Stafford’s face when he looked out and saw two guys on the line of scrimmage, vising (Johnson). He looked at them like, ‘I can’t do anything.’ So he had to throw the ball somewhere else.”

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Johnson faced a Williams-coached defense three more times after the vise game, too, and never saw the coverage again. He topped 100 yards receiving in two of those games, including in a 2011 playoff loss when Johnson had 12 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns, one of the best receiving days in postseason history.

“I said something, probably said something in the press or something about how well we did (in the first game),” Williams said. “And in pregame warmup — and Calvin’s not a talker, but Calvin pointed at me. And he pointed at me and put his hands together like, talk, talk, talk, talk. And I went, ‘Oh shit, here he goes.’ And that’s how he played.”

After the game, Williams said he stopped Johnson on the field and told him, “You’re one of the best I have ever had a chance to go against, and you played lights out.”

“A Hall of Fame player to me is, again, one of those people that it takes more than just one person to beat him,” Williams said. “You’re going to have to make sure that you have more than one other guy who’s not a Hall of Famer to go up against that kind of guy.

“But also somebody that represents the great things of our league. The great types of plays. You would hope also that they will be the ambassador for the league in the right ways off the field, and the ambassador for the league with teammates. And the right type of captains in our sport. And voice-makers in our sport. So all that, and he fits in every one of those categories.”

Dave Birkett is a Hall of Fame voter and will deliver Johnson’s selection committee presentation Tuesday. Contact him at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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